Documentary ‘Damnation’ Looks at How Dams Harm The James, And Species Nationwide

by | May 21, 2014 | POLITICS

The James River Outdoor Coalition will be showing the award-winning documentary, Dam Nation, on May 22nd at the Manchester Floodwall for the RVA premiere.

The James River Outdoor Coalition will be showing the award-winning documentary, Dam Nation, on May 22nd at the Manchester Floodwall for the RVA premiere.

According to, they describe the film as “a powerful odyssey across America which explores the sea change in our national attitude from pride in big dams as engineering wonders to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the life and health of our rivers. Dam removal has moved beyond the fictional Monkey Wrench Gang to go mainstream. Where obsolete dams come down, rivers bound back to life, giving salmon and other wild fish the right of return to primeval spawning grounds, after decades without access. DamNation’s majestic cinematography and unexpected discoveries move through rivers and landscapes altered by dams, but also through a metamorphosis in values, from conquest of the natural world to knowing ourselves as part of nature.” (

Basically, dams are bad, according to the filmmakers.

The director and narrator Ben Knight described dams as being places his friends would sneak into to skateboard through the tunnels. But after their journey filming, they never looked at dams the same way again. According to the film there are over 75,000 dams in the country, and the problem is figuring out which are useful to society and which ones need to be torn down.

One of the main issues is about the migration patterns of salmon, which dams block, and is a cause for their species dwindling. I sat down with Patrick Griffin, the President of the JROC, to talk about the film premiere, and why this film is important in regards to Richmond.

“We don’t have salmon, the very attractive species of the Pacific Northwest, but we do have shad. They make a migration every year and when they come up to Richmond they have to navigate almost a maze to be able to get past Richmond. And even once they get up the multiple dams we have, there’s really only one way that they can get up or they’re just bumping into a concrete wall. So they have to figure out what that one way is and the fraction of the population of fish navigates that through four major dams.”

Shad, Blueback Herring, Atlantic Sturgeon, and Eels spawn in Virginia’s rivers and parts of the Chesapeake Bay and spend the rest of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean. Dams make it hard for them to spawn, and thus the fish population decreases more and more each year.

Five different major dams were built on the James River in Richmond, as the water dropped 100 feet in its 7-mile journey through the Fall “Zone.” Manchester and Brown’s Island Dam, Belle Isle Dam, and Williams Island Dam have opened fishways around the major dams and no longer block passage. The last major dam on the James River near the Fall Line to get a fish bypass was Boshers Dam, at the I-295 bridge west of Richmond.

The Boshers Dam Vertical Slot Fishway provided access to 137 miles of the James River upstream, plus 168 miles of tributaries, which have had dams removed on the Rivanna and Tye Rivers.

Instead of building new dams, public agencies are focused on removing outdated dams which block fish migration, or are safety risks. Many of the smaller dams have been washed away by floods, or have been breached. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have begun the process of removing larger dams, or installing fishways to allow the many species of fish to cross artificial barriers.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation revised dam safety requirements in 2012, and owners of many dams discovered that relicensing would require upgrading spillways or making other expensive repairs.

Dam removal has become a very controversial topic. Even though Virginia has been working on removing outdated dams instead of building new ones, the fishways that are being built don’t necessarily work. If you’re a fish going in one direction to spawn upstream, the percentage of actually getting into the fishway is very small. Otherwise, like Griffin said, they will just keep bumping into the wall.

Dam Nation explains all of this, and dives deep with interviews and stock footage of people like Edward Abbey, who was an advocate for environmental issues and is known for his anarchist political views and novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The film quotes Abbey saying, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” Griffin says, “The main connection to the film for Richmond would be the shad and the sturgeon and just the health of our river in general. We have a whole section of river that doesn’t see any water because of our dam. It’s outside of Belle Isle and it only sees water when the river gets up to a certain level. That’s a dead end for the shad right now and for the sturgeon if they’re navigating upstream.”

Dam Nation is the recipient of the Audience Award at SXSW, and the 2014 Documentary Award for Environmental Advocacy from the DC International Film Festival. JROC paired with the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program to help bring the film to Richmond, and Griffin hopes people will take away the importance of the ideologies from the film.

“If people can come together and fight for those rights, and for what’s the best interest in the long-term that would be great. Because, quite frankly, a lot of these species of fish have been around for millions of years so once a dam that has been up for 50 years is taken down,” said Griffin. “Species will rebound and that could be a really good thing for us and especially if we’re using it for a food supply.”

The film premiere will start at 9:00PM on Thursday evening, but starting at 8:00PM there will be food trucks, including King of Pops, music, and also local interest groups that will talk beforehand and answer questions to help explain the dam situation.

Attendees are encouraged to bring a donation for the James River Park systems. There is a suggested $5 donation with 100% of proceeds going back to the James River Outdoor Coalition. So bring some lawn chairs and blankets and enjoy the movie!

For more information on the film go to their website and for more information about the event check out this link.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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